Where do they come from? What message were they meant send? Who was behind their presence?
“It really started to bother everyone,” says Ellie Erhart, a design assistant at the company. “Not in a bad way. It was good and happy to receive a flamingo, but it was also like, ‘Who put this here?’”
The mystery went on for months before finally being solved during a Christmas gift exchange in December. The office prank — a whimsical plan that was equal parts sane and naughty — became an online sensation, after a Twitter thread detailing the prank went viral for the holiday season. It has since inspired legions of office mates to bring some lightness to the workplace.
Her 16-person team at the company wouldn’t figure it out for months, but inspiration for the stunt struck Charlesbridge senior editor Karen Boss in June, when she spotted a set of string lights, each tiny bulb encased in a pink flamingo made of matte plastic, while helping her mother clean out a shed.
They were headed for the trash, but Boss had an idea: the cute birds deserved a better fate than the dump, she thought, and they should make people smile one last time.
So she took them home and placed several anonymously on her colleagues’ desks one early morning.
“My main motivation, just in general, is to make people happy,” Boss said. “And so I really thought maybe this would just be a cute, fun thing when we come back to the office” post-COVID.
She had no idea how far her colleagues would go, or if the mysterious birds would become the talk of the office for six months.
When Mira Kennedy, a 25-year-old production worker, was “flamingo-ed,” she snapped a photo and posted it to Slack, a messaging app for businesses.
“Where do these come from?” she wrote.
But no one confessed.
“We were all very confused and a little elated,” Kennedy said. “We suspected everyone. Everyone was just pointing the finger. It was a bit like a fun witch hunt.”
Theories spread quickly. Alibis were checked. Evidence was referenced. Once, when an editor loudly complained that he didn’t have a flamingo, then promptly got one, staffers scrambled to find out who was within earshot at the time.
Due to a company COVID policy, Charlesbridge kept a log of who was in the office and when, so someone decided to consult it to look for clues.
But Boss was always two steps ahead.
“It didn’t work because Karen sneaked in on her days off,” Kennedy said. “I never thought anyone would put so much effort into this.”
There was so much interest in the flamingos that Boss had to find and buy a few more online to make sure everyone got one. To cover her tracks, she also put a flamingo on her own desk.
This wasn’t the first time Boss surprised people with anonymous quirks. During the doldrums of the pandemic, she secretly handed out 100 little wooden hearts in the mailboxes of her neighbors in Dedham, later walking the streets with a bag of googly eyes and sticking them on signs and phone polls to make them look like faces .
“I have this little history of leaving cute things for people to find that might give them a little bit of a smile in their day,” she said.
But the flamingo caper was her longest cheat yet — one that finally came to a “grand finale” around the holiday season.
During the company’s “Secret Santa” exchange, she put a plastic flamingo in a gift bag. When an employee reached in and pulled it out, the reaction was sheer chaos.
“She really held it high in the air,” Boss said. “Everyone started screaming and the whole room exploded. It was really fantastic.”
Erhart said people may have thought she was exaggerating, “but it was definitely as dramatic as she said it was.” There was literally screaming.”
Boss was proud of her months-long plan, so she posted a play-by-play on Twitter in mid-December. In no time, the light-hearted story became a sensation, as thousands of comments poured in from admirers around the world.
By Wednesday, the thread had already been viewed nearly 10 million times.
One person called it “the cutest thing that ever happened.”
“My favorite story of the year,” said another person.
Some commenters shared their own stories of heartwarming jokes, while others said it felt like a Christmas movie came to life — or, more accurately, a children’s book.
The story came at just the right time, when fear and discord seemed to be on the rise on social media.
“Twitter is having some big issues right now, but people like this kind of feel-good stuff during the holiday season,” Boss said. “I think that’s why it resonated.”
Boss was especially fond of those who took notice of her first name and the bad rap it can come online.
“Some people said, ‘This is the Karen we need,'” she said.
She is especially happy that her story has made people want to make up similar stunts with their colleagues.
“I really hope people go back to their offices in the new year and try to bring some joy into their space,” she said. “I think that would be really great.”
In June, I helped my mom clean up her pool shed. There is a strand of old twinkling lights with plastic flamingos. “Throw them away,” she says. “They don’t work.” But I see the flamingos came off easily, so I start pulling them off. “I can use this.”
— Karen Boss 🦩 (@kbworld33) December 16, 2022
Spencer Buell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Spencer Buell.